Perhaps you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I’ve learnt a few things over the past year or two. This is due to seeing loved family members and pets suffer degenerative conditions, strokes and other hardships, mostly the result of growing older.
I don’t believe there’s anything we can do to stop ageing, but there is a lot each of us can do to maintain good quality of life for ourselves and others. I think the most valuable thing we can ever give is our full attention.
If, like me, you’ve visited elderly relatives in hospital (in the UK), there is a high chance that you will have found this distressing, especially if your relative became disoriented and didn’t understand where they were or what was happening. (My belief that the NHS, modern hospital design and modern nursing practices can harm patients as much as heal them is a topic for another blog.)
One close relative was very disturbed after being admitted to hospital and I did not think they would ever regain their mental balance. However, it was due to the patience and attention of another relative who took the time to sit down and talk to them for hundreds of hours, day after day, week after week, month after month that they did. The transformation has been magical and the relative who had been in hospital has returned to their former self as much as their condition will allow.
This brought joy to my family and me, but also made me realise that there are thousands of individuals, mainly the elderly, who have no one to sit with them, to talk to them, to offer them a lifeline from hallucination and isolation back to reality, to give them all-important attention.
It also made me think of the thousands of family members, friends, neighbours and volunteers who give their attention freely. These carers are rarely acknowledged, thanked, supported or rewarded.
We talk about lack of resources in the health and care system, but what is rarely mentioned and never addressed is this lack of attention. We have professions that for decades have prevented their members from caring for those who need care and attention.
And then there’s our dog, also an elderly chap. We have brought him up, trained him, walked him, fed him, cleaned up after him, played games with him, cuddled him and talked to him for 13 years. He loves life and gives life back to us. Why is he relevant?
Last autumn we took him to the beach where he forgot his age and galloped through the lapping waves and dug in the sand like a manic puppy. That evening he was exhausted, totally wiped out. Over the following weeks we noticed he stumbled occasionally but thought this was the ageing process accelerating. This year he suffered what we now believe was a stroke. We rushed him to the vet and had to leave him overnight. The outlook was not good and we came home with heavy hearts.
The following morning brought good news: he had made it through and was responding to treatment. That afternoon we collected him and brought him home: a warm, floppy, sleepy bundle, unable even to stand up.
Over the following days, I lifted him up and carried him into the garden and up and down the steps. Never once did he have an ‘accident’ in the house: he’s a clean dog and doesn’t approve of that. Gradually, he was able to stand and take a few steps. I took him round the garden on his lead. If he tried to cock his leg, he fell over, so holding the lead steadied him. As he got stronger, I walked him a little way down the road. He would fall against garden walls and tip over if he climbed even a small grassy incline.
We have two dogs and we had to walk each separately. Doing this while also working was a challenge, but we didn’t mind as it helped him recover.
What was so lovely was how he cuddled us. He was just like that puppy we brought home 13 years ago, so vulnerable and depending on us totally.
Gradually he got stronger and we could see him becoming frustrated. Having his jaws prised open, tablets dropped down his throat, jaws closed, then snout held and throat tickled to make him swallow three times a day made him growl. I think I would do the same.
We took him with our other dog to his favourite field for a walk. Still on a lead, he tried to run but fell over and he walked with his head at an angle. Day by day, he grew stronger and we started walking both dogs together. He started to climb stairs again but would stumble down them.
We started playing sniff again, hiding small treats around the house for him to sniff out. At first, he managed two easy ones before falling over. Over the weeks he managed more, his eye-to-snout coordination improving greatly.
Four months later, he can manage nine sniffs, some cunningly concealed upstairs and around the house. His head no longer tilts and he is off all medication. He runs and even leaps when we are out, now able to land on all four paws. He is deaf and does sleep really deeply, but then he is 13. I did not dare to believe that he would be able to recover so well.
What this old dog has learnt from both these experiences is how strong the body and mind are and how much they can heal themselves, given the right care, stimulation and attention.
For me it is important to sit with my relative whenever I can and spend time with them, talking with no distraction, no mobile phone, radio or television, taking them out and making their day special in any way.
It is important to play games with my dog, to stop working and stroke him or take him for a walk, see him take an interest in everything around and wag his tail in contentment.
None of us lives forever and we can’t put off ageing indefinitely, but giving our attention makes life better for all of us. I want to give my loved ones attention while I can: the opportunity passes fast.
It’s so easy to say ‘I love you’, but it means so much more to give our loved ones our full attention.